Exploring the World of Podcasts

by Steven Kelley, CRC, CVRT

You've heard the term "podcast" before, but do you know what it means? Of course! A little pod being cast about, right? Well, almost.

What is a Podcast?

A podcast is usually some type of audio presentation that is distributed or broadcast on the Internet. Strictly speaking, it is a serial audio presentation that you subscribe to with something called a "podcatcher," which is a software application or "app."

Audio presentations are made up of digital files that are sent over the Internet. Once you subscribe to a podcast using the podcatcher, new audio presentations are then delivered automatically after publication whenever the podcatcher is connected to the Internet.

You might think of podcasts as radio programming on-demand. Podcasts may provide news, entertainment, newspaper reading services, training presentations, lectures, and so much more! Often, the settings on the podcatcher software will allow users to download the audio program file automatically at the time of publication, or at the time a user wants to listen to it.

Often the podcasts may be "streamed," meaning that the file is played over the Internet, as opposed to being first downloaded to the podcatcher and then played later. You might think of "streaming" as being like an Internet Radio.

Downloading audio files from the Internet is not new, and certainly predates the term "podcast." In 2001, Apple released the first iPods, which were small digital audio players on which users could download audio files from their computer to take with them on the go. The convenience and portability of the Apple iPod fueled the creation and broadcasting of serial audio productions that could be downloaded and played on the iPod. By 2005 or so, these digital presentations were being called "podcasts."

Audio-on-Demand

Podcasts, and the digital audio files from which they are created, are dramatically changing the way information is delivered. For example, if you missed the Ted Radio Hour, your favorite NPR radio broadcast, you can download the episode's archived file as a podcast or subscribe to the show's podcast "feed. The feed is just the website address used by a podcatcher or Web browser to find the latest digital audio files as they are broadcast.

In this example, the link used to subscribe to the Ted Radio Hour is "feed://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=510298." This link is meaningless to us, but a Web browser or podcatcher will recognize this as a RSS feed (Real Simple Syndication). This is the protocol used to make the automatic distribution of a podcast happen.

Podcasts for the Technology Challenged

the National Library Service Digital Talking Book Player

The NLS Digital Talking
Book Player and cartridge

The technology behind podcasts is very flexible, so it may prove to be a powerful tool for both computer users and technophobes alike.

For example, you can download podcasts to the National Library Service (NLS) digital cartridge and play them on a Talking Book player. These are free, easy-to-use players distributed at no cost by the NLS.

You can read more about the NLS Digital Talking Book Player at Audio Players and Talking Books at VisionAware.org.

You can also purchase blank cartridges (pictured at left) from a number of specialty sources, including Perkins Products. Be sure to order the USB cable along with the cartridge, because this is not a standard USB cable.

Talking Book digital cartridge. Credit: Perkins

Blank digital cartridge

A family member or friend who is more comfortable with computers can download these podcasts easily and make them available to someone less comfortable with computers or with the process of downloading files.

The NLS Talking Book player is just one example. You can also do the same with other accessible players, such as the Victor Reader Stream, the iPod Touch, or Milestone 312. You can read more about these accessible options at Audio Players and Talking Books at VisionAware.org.

Podcatching Apps

If you are already a computer user or own a smartphone or tablet, here are some useful software podcatchers.

For the PC

  • WebbIE is a suite of applications that is completely accessible and simple to use. It includes an accessible podcatcher in the suite. If you are new to podcasts or screen readers this is a good place to start, and it's free.

For iOS (iPod, iPad, or iPhone)

  • Downcast is available as an app for both the Apple iOS devices and the Mac. It is $2.99 and $7.99 respectively and completely accessible with the VoiceOver screen reader.
  • Overcast has changed from a pay model to free, is simple to use, and is accessible using VoiceOver.

For Android

  • DoggCatcher is $2.99 and accessible with TalkBack screen reader.
  • Podkicker is free and fully accessible. It is easy to use and has a powerful search function for finding podcasts.

Internet Access

Keep in mind that if you are an Internet user, you can always use a Web browser like Safari, Chrome, or Internet Explorer to go to the website of the podcast you are interested in, and either download the file, or listen to it streaming live. For example, one of my favorite weekly podcasts, Accessible World Tek Talk is in Podkicker on my Android phone and updates automatically with each new episode.

Alternatively, if I'm on my desktop computer, the Tek Talk Archives webpage has a list of all the podcasts to date as MP3 audio files. Clicking on one of the archived files opens it and begins playing it. It's very simple.

Access Technology Podcasts

To get started, here are several podcasts related to accessible technology and vision loss with the feed address that you can put into a podcatcher.

Seminars at Hadley

The Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired offers regular podcasts on a wide variety of interests related to vision loss. Podcasts include daily living skills, access technology, employment, and much more. Subscribe to the Hadley podcasts.

Note: Hadley categorizes its podcasts, so if you want to select specific ones, check the complete list of podcast categories.

Accessible World Tek Talk

Tek Talk is a weekly live presentation on topics related to technology for users who are blind or visually impaired. Each presentation is archived as a podcast and available after the show. Subscribe to the Tek Talk podcast.

Cool Blind Tech

Cool Blind Tech regularly distributes podcasts that include reviews, discussions, and news about the latest in accessible technology. Subscribe to the Cool Blind Tech podcast.

The Braille Institute

The Braille Institute provides a wide variety of resources and service to promote access to braille, and the independence of braille users. Subscribe to the Braille Institute Podcast.

Talking Computers Audio Magazine

This free monthly audio magazine covers topics related to screen readers and accessibility. Subscribe to Talking Computers podcast.

RNIB Tech Talk

This weekly show covers a wide variety of technology topics from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) of the UK.

Eyes on Success

Eyes on Success is a half-hour show that discusses a great deal more than just tech. Their shows also include information on products, services, and daily living topics for individuals with a vision loss. Subscribe to Eyes on Success.

Start Listening!

The wide variety and popularity of podcasts has certainly exploded since the term was first coined following the introduction of Apple's iPod 15 years ago! Once you start exploring some of the rich diversity of podcasts, most often at no cost, you will realize that podcasts really are seed pods of entertainment, educational lectures, training, and so much more, cast onto the Internet for your own enjoyment and education!

Personal Stories

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    As a person with retinitis pigmentosa, "Mobility matters. It allows me to join the rest of society, follow my interests and passion, and reconnect with my love for traveling. I don't have to stay at home fearing the dark anymore. I can live independently."

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